You Can Take Steps to Lower Your Breast Cancer Risk

Fear of breast cancer is widespread, yet many women don’t realize that adopting protective living habits may help keep it at bay. The habits described below may also help to ward off other life-threatening ills, like heart disease and diabetes.

Certainly, women have ample reason to worry about breast cancer. The disease is very common. One woman in eight in the United States will develop it in the course of a lifetime. The American Cancer Society estimates that this year 252,710 new cases of invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed, and 40,610 women will die from the disease.

Regular screening is touted as the most effective way to reduce breast cancer deaths, although experts continue to debate who should be screened, how often and at what ages. But not nearly enough is said about what women can do on their own to lower their risk of getting breast cancer in the first place.

One of the most important actions is an inaction: not smoking. The incidence of smoking has fallen significantly in the last half century, yet every day on the streets of New York I still see young women and teenage girls smoking. A decades-long study conducted among 102,098 women in Norway and Sweden found that, compared with nonsmokers, those who smoked 10 or more cigarettes a day for 20 or more years had a third higher risk of developing invasive breast cancer, and girls who started smoking before age 15 were nearly 50 percent more likely to get breast cancer.

An editorial in The Journal of Clinical Oncology last year stated that as many as 20,000 women in the United States continue to smoke even after a diagnosis of breast cancer. The authors, Dr. Barbara A. Parker and John P. Pierce of the University of California, San Diego, said breast cancer patients who quit smoking can add significantly to the benefits of postoperative chemotherapy and radiation.

Another important factor under personal control is weight. As body mass index, or B.M.I., rises, so does a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer, especially if she carries much of her excess weight around her waist. That’s because abdominal fat is particularly metabolically active, producing growth factors and hormones, including estrogen, that can stimulate the growth of breast cancer cells.

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Jeffrey R. Ungvary President

Jeffrey R. Ungvary